Chocolate as a health food
Good dark chocolate is made of cacao and sugar at different ratios, with cacao preferably dominant in this ratio.
Cacao beans are one of the most micronutrient-dense plant foods known to humanity, beyond this in chocolate they are fermented, enhancing their nutrition and adding to them beneficial gut bacteria. They are also an excellent source of plant protein and full of good fat: cacao butter.
Processed responsibly, cacao retains the health benefits of a superfood and yet still manages to call itself “dessert"
100% chocolate, made entirely of cacao with nothing else can be a strong flavour for most people outside the chocolate world. It’s an “extreme” health food and can improve your life in a multitude of ways (detailed further on).
Similarly to an espresso, the flavour can feel intense to most palates and is often softened with sugar. Most people who “get into” chocolate report increasing the cacao % of their preferred chocolate as their palate gets accustomed, meaning having less sugar in their chocolate over time.
Some of these nutrients do not survive roasting, and many do. Chocolate as a health food balances both good flavour and good nutrition, and we believe that foods of good flavour enables you to eat them more frequently, enjoying the good nutrition on a consistent basis.
The other ingredient in a good dark chocolate, sugar is not inherently bad, it is energy in a very efficient state. Energy comes from all the food you eat, and within the amount of energy you’re looking to consume in a day, a stable healthy diet will have you eating these calories in as nutrient-dense food as possible, with minor adjustments for your personal needs. Also watch for sharp spikes of blood-glucose and avoid large amounts of food that causes it unless it follows, or is combined with fibre*.
*for specific medical advice please consult a docotor
Chocolate with 5-25%, some say even 30% sugar is still a superfood, with additional energy which comes from the sweetness level your palate needs to soften the cacao. It is a net positive on your health, given that you control your energy intake across your diet. See on the right the results of a device measuring glucose-blood levels after eating different % of chocolate.
Read more about sugar in our blog post covering regular sugar as well as low-GI sugars and sugar alcohols.
Including chocolate in a healthy diet
Cacao is one of the best natural sources of antioxidants, minerals and good fatty acids. There are big impacts to high inclusion of these in your diet. On the other hand, chocolate is calorically dense and easy to over-eat.
The solution? Eat a smaller amount of high quality chocolate which is more satisfying and has more of these nutrients, rather than a big amount of other chocolate.
Flavour and body support this as well, considering a good chocolate with complex, long flavour and rich body is very satisfying in smaller amounts, while low quality chocolate with weak flavour and lots of sugar “demands” eating more before feeling satisfaction.
Should your diet be high in sugar across the board, we recommend (we are not doctors!) eating darker chocolate as to not increase your total sugar consumption beyond a comfortable level while still enjoying the benefits of chocolate. Should your diet be lower in sugar, you can enjoy sweeter chocolate in moderation. If you have a medical reason not to consume sugar, we offer chocolate with keto sugar replacements.
In general, when looking for chocolate as a health product we recommend avoiding chocolate below 70% cacao. While it may taste good, it is not as effective at supporting your wellbeing.
Antioxidants like the polyphenols, flavonols, and catechins present in chocolate neutralise free radicals (an excellent name for unstable electrically charged molecules). Too many free radicals for the body to disarm lead to oxidative imbalance/stress, which leads to inflammation (that puffy feeling in your body and face when you’re not feeling well or experiencing autoimmune effects like from an allergy). Together these two lead to stress, ageing, cancer, autoimmune disorders, and cardiovascular and neurodegenerative disease
According to this medical study, cacao and dark chocolate have more of these antioxidant organic compounds than any other fruit tested, including blueberries and acai berries.
It is also one of the highest ranking foods on ORAC, a test for effectiveness of antioxidants on free radicals in lab conditions, outside the body.
Good quality cacao has high levels of potassium, phosphorus, zinc, selenium, iron and magnesium, and very high levels of copper and manganese.
These minerals help a variety of key bodily functions as well as make up the brain itself. A diet rich in minerals is key for fitness training and recovery as well as brain health and function. (again, I am not a doctor!)
Lacking these minerals in my system, I feel a lack of energy, difficulty with thinking in depth similar to a foggy brain, poor muscle recovery (pain early into exercise, soreness for a long time after), poor sleep length and quality, higher stress and anxiety. This is a personal experience however and not a specific doctor’s advice.
Cacao butter has a very good fatty acid profile: oleic acid, stearic acid, palmitic acid and linoleic acid, as well as a small mix of others.
Oleic Acid is an omega-9 fatty acid that makes up a big part of cacao butter. It is both produced in the body and consumed in healthy foods such as olive oil. It supports heart health and reduces cholesterol.
Stearic Acid a big portion of cacao butter usually comes from animal fat except for cacao and shea butter, and small portions in other plants. It is a saturated long-chain fatty acid. It is an emollient meaning it softens and smoothes our skin, the reason for which it is included in so many skin moisturising products.
Oleic & Stearic acids together make up 70% of the fatty acids in cacao, making cacao an excellent source of the two.
Palmitic Acid is also an emollient and good for our skin. It’s downside is increasing LDL cholesterol.
Linoleic Acid is a type of omega-3 fatty acid, contrary to Palmitic acid it reduces LDL cholesterol in our body. It is necessary for human growth and development, decreasing the risk of heart disease by helping to maintain normal heart rhythm and pumping. It might also reduce blood clots although further evidence is required.
Fermented foods, besides making food delicious by adding umami and increasing flavour complexity, length and volume or body to the flavour, also play a major role in human health. Fermented foods are a cornerstone of human immunity and digestion and it can be argued that we have evolved to be sustained by them, more so than sanitary food or cooked food.
Cacao WANTS to be fermented. Cacao pods are full of cacao beans, coated in yummy fruit pulp made of sugar and wild yeasts. These yeasts are designed to break down the sugars, making the beans delicious and healthy.
Good quality chocolate is fermented for a week in its natural microbial ecology, while mass produced chocolate is simply left to mould before drying and killing the mould in excessive roasting.
Fermented foods enrich our health in a number of ways. They are pre-digested thanks to the yeasts, making the nutrients in the food more bioavailable. They nourish our gut bacteria with new strains of bacteria who “teach” the existing population new ways of protecting us from pathogens and new enzymes with which to break food more effectively, although this only happens before beans are roasted. They enhance the nutrition of food by unbinding indigestible antinutrients from minerals, allowing us to enjoy more micronutrients in our food. They even detoxify our food by out-competing pathogens in our food and in our system (also, only in beans which were not roasted).
Brain, skin, heart and blood
Cacao has fibre content, around 10-15% of our daily needs in 100 gram of chocolate 75% chocolate. Cacao has both long lasting and short term positive impact on the brain’s cognitive function. (again, not a doctor) In the long term, this study shown that in only 5 days of eating high flavanol (type of antioxidants) chocolate, blood flow to the brain can be increased. Another shows increased cognitive function in older adults with mild cognitive impairment, as well as verbal fluency.
For the impatient of us, short-term boost of cacao’s theobromine and tiny dose of caffeine show improvement in brain function after eating chocolate. Great snack for studying.
When it comes to our skin, this study shows improved blood flow to skin and increased skin density and hydration in women. MED, or minimal erythemal dose is the minimal UVB ray exposure required to redden your skin 24 hour after being in the sun. This study, although granted a small sample size, shows that MED was more than doubled after only 12 weeks of consuming chocolate high in flavanols.
Are you planning a sunny beach holiday? Load up on high quality chocolate in the weeks before
These flavanols in cacao stimulate artery linings to produce nitric oxide, lowering resistance to blood flow and reducing blood pressure according to this study. However, different studies show different amounts of impact, some even none so further evidence for this particular claim is needed.